We had a dream...

We wanted to see if we could eat almost entirely from our own land. Here's what we learned about the joys, and realities, of the locavore life
Margo True and the Sunset staff

On a late-summer evening, in the middle of the garden, a group of us are having dinner. The cucumbers come from vines sprawled a few feet away. The eggs inside the little baked squashes are courtesy of the six hens clucking at the garden’s far end. The tomatoes were picked an hour ago. Everything we’re eating tonight, from the wine in our glasses to the honey in the sorbet, we made or grew ourselves, right here.

We’re longtime fans of the local eating movement, which champions getting food grown as close as possible to where you live. About a year ago, we took this to its logical conclusion: Instead of a 100-mile or 50-mile diet, how about a one-block diet? We’d raise everything at Sunset, in a backyard-size plot, for a late-summer feast (and a lot of cooking beyond).

First, we dreamed up the menu; then we planted fruits and vegetables. We needed fat for cooking, but what to use? The giant old olive trees on our property held the answer in their branches. A group of staffers, dubbed Team Olive, started investigating how to press our olives for oil.

As for what to drink, a pair of grapevines in the garden gave us the idea. Team Wine drove into the nearby Santa Cruz Mountains, picked 500 pounds of Syrah grapes, and crushed them in a Sunset parking lot. Meanwhile, our head gardener, Rick LaFrentz, led Team Beer in making a summery wheat brew.

We needed protein. Enter Team Cheese (using milk from a Bay Area dairy) and Team Chicken (focusing on eggs, not meat). Finally, we needed a natural sweetener for dessert: honey. Plus, its hardworking producers would pollinate our garden. Team Bee was born.

We began our project knowing how to garden and cook. But as for winemaking, beekeeping, saltmaking, and the rest of it, we were completely untrained. We tackled these time-honored crafts with beginner’s gusto, and learned that we really could do it all. And so can you. 

Next: We raised chickens

 

We raised chickens

Our flock of six baby chicks grew to hen-hood. Six surprising facts :

1. No rooster necesary  Even without a male, hens will lay eggs (they just won’t hatch). Plus, roosters are noisy; if you’re raising chickens in a city, you want to get all hens.

2. Cute but weird  A chicken closes its eyelids from the bottom.

3. Chest rubs are calming  Frantic, peeping chick? Gently lay it on its back in your hand and stroke its chest. The little one will bliss out.

4. Odd appetites  The favorite food of adolescent chickens, at least our chickens: wild fennel. They destroyed a vigorous 6-foot plant within a week. Second favorite food: hot green chiles. (Birds can’t taste spiciness.)

5. Easily confused  When a hen reaches egg-laying maturity, she will squat near your feet and beg to be stroked. She thinks you are a rooster―a good delusion to perpetuate.

6. An egg a day Adult hens usually lay one egg a day. Our flock of six produces three dozen delicious eggs a week, for only the cost of chicken scratch ... well, and one vet bill. – ELIZABETH JARDINA

Next: We made wine

 

We crushed grapes for wine

Winemaking is like following a very long, slow recipe. Here are some peak moments:

Picking  How long does it take to harvest 500 pounds of Syrah? Only a couple of hours for Team Wine, who cut bunches of sweet, seedy grapes in a remote Thomas Fogarty Winery vineyard in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Crushing  In a parking lot at Sunset, we pulverized the grapes in a borrowed crusher-destemmer ― like a large funnel with a rotating screw in the middle. We also used our bare feet, I Love Lucy-style. Stomping grapes is a lot harder than it looks, like huffing up a stair climber set in quicksand. Especially if you’re laughing.

Punching down  We stirred our burbling, fermenting cauldrons (okay, clean trash cans) of crushed grapes, juice, and wine yeast with a big wooden paddle, submerging the thick cap of skins to keep them moist and sending color and flavor into the juice. We measured the sugar daily to make sure the yeast was gobbling it up and converting it into alcohol, putting our high school chemistry to use.

Pressing  When sugar levels dropped to zero, primary fermentation was finished―we’d made wine! It was time to clean it up with a press, which looked like wood fencing wrapped around a Christmas tree stand. We dumped in our wine and inflated a rubber bladder in the middle, squishing the wine through the wood slats. We ran a bucket brigade to catch wine pouring from the spigot, then carefully splashed it into glass jugs called carboys.

Oaking  The easiest and cheapest way to give a wine oak character isn’t a barrel but oak chips. We tossed a small handful of toasted chips into each 5-gal. carboy. –ERIKA EHMSEN